Klaus Huber: Focus on Mankind

Klaus Huber: Focus on Mankind

Klaus Huber, born November 30, 1924, in Switzerland, is one of the last living representatives of the so-called post-war generation. He was a late starter, as he says himself. Since the end of the Fifties his works have been performed successfully by excellent musicians. But he was no opinion-shaper like Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, or Cage, even though Huber’s writings are extensive, stimulating and, not rarely, polemical. As professor of composition in Freiburg, he became one of the most influential teachers of his generation. His pupils include diverse composers such as Febel, Ferneyhough, Hosokawa, Jarrell, Lauck, Pagh-Paan, Platz, Rihm, Saariaho, and Wüthrich.

Reflecting on Social Conditions
When starting the composition of his full-length oratorio Erniedrigt… geknechtet…verlassen…verachtet… (1975, 1978-83), he found a fitting home in Ricordi, the publisher of Italy’s left-wing composers like Nono and Maderna. Coming after a long period of composition, its premiere in Donaueschingen in 1983 marked a climax in his public impact. The music put its finger right on the pulse of the peace movement: aesthetically overwhelming, with orchestra and choir, paired up with Huber’s own expression of sharp criticism of the political circumstances, degrading of mankind, in Nicaragua. 

Up until then, many people had underestimated Huber. The works’ Latin titles, his frequent reference to spiritual, biblical themes, the emphatic interest in Early Music with its contrapuntal and isorhythmic techniques struck many as antiquated and unworldly – unjustly so. Looking back, it seems more accurate to say that he has consistently kept his music well apart from compositional fashions, but not from historical and intellectual currents, which are reflected in his music both artistically and in terms of aesthetic content.

Nono’s Death and the Second Gulf War
The aesthetic change that leads to Huber’s late period is remarkably novel and was first revealed to the public by the Witten premiere of the string trio Des Dichters Pflug (1989) in third-tone tuning. Shortly afterwards, Huber was made professor emeritus, and his friend Luigi Nono (b. 1924) died on May 8, 1990 (At their last meeting Huber had lent him a book on Sufism). The Second Gulf War began and lead to huge anti-war demonstrations, and not just in Germany. 

This provided the aesthetically fertile ground for his late period. In memory of Nono, Huber wrote his …Plainte… for viola d’amore (1990). Numerous references and re-workings have made this piece a sort of seed for his late period, as well as a kind of self-portrait with Nono, and also with Ossip Mandelstam, the poet who died in a Russian gulag in 1938; the rhythm of …Plainte… is based on the spoken rhythms of one of his poems.

Variants and Interlockings
Beneath the surface, Huber’s late works are intricately interconnected. The solo piece …Plainte… was also intended as one of the 17 soloist layers in the monumental spatial composition Die umgepflügte Zeit (1990) which, alongside a choir as well as a third-tone and a quarter-tone ensemble, move through the space, following Nono’s precedent with compositions like “Hay que caminar” soñando (1989) or Prometeo – Tragedia dell’ascolto (1981-84, 1985). 

As so often, there are also reductions of Huber’s big pieces. Time and time again, his pieces have undergone these kinds of variant versions, so that they can reach performance by means of various instrumentations, and in varied forms. Superimposed, autonomous layers had already occurred, as in the orchestral piece Protuberanzen, which contains three movements that, purely “to save time,” can also be played simultaneously – a caustic side-swipe at the ‘snippet-culture’ preferred by concert promoters.

Mozart – Mandelstam – Nono
An important stage in Huber’s recomposition of …Plainte… lies at the centre of the string quintet Ecce homines (1998), where it is overlaid with fragments from Mozart’s G minor String Quintet – idealistically performed in a mean-tone intonation – which are re-instrumented, and completed by a canon in inversion. The quintet is a sort of model for his major Mandelstam opera Schwarzerde, which sums up the late period. At a central point in that work there are seven instrumentalists who wander through the audience playing …Plainte… Mozart, Mandelstam, Nono: for Huber these are the mountains standing firm against the surge of time, artists in the sense of an aesthetic of resistance, people who pursue their ideals.

Pitch Spaces – Human Spaces
What links Huber to Nono is not just his interest in the performance space, but also in the pitch space. From his very first compositions, Huber set these in contrast to one another: diatonic chorales and twelvetone chromaticism, semitones against quarter-tones since the 1960s, and in the late period third-tones come up especially often against Arabian quarter-tone pitch spaces. His music reveals astonishment at such different but extensive musical traditions with hundreds of pitch scales and assemblages of additive rhythms which are longer than one could imagine in traditional Western music. Huber’s reference to the traditional Arabic music draws attention to an admirable culture whose people have been viewed with hostility in the Western world, who were bombarded, and whose museums were opened up for looting.

The Unfulfilled Potentials of the Past
Huber’s late period is basically microtonal, but Huber dislikes this nomenclature since he relates his music to traditional, historical systems. Traditional chromaticism – for Huber now an embodiment of imperialist violence – is either excluded, or else very sparingly used, as in the “Märschlein der Dienstbefliessenen” (“March of the Submissive”) in Schwarzerde. Huber’s father was a musicologist, so it is not surprising that he cultivates a special interest in early music, the “unfulfilled potentials of the past.” 

It is precisely in the late period that Huber composes for “forgotten” instruments such as the viola d’amore (a kind of seven-string viola) and the baryton (similar to the cello), and also for countertenor. Even though it is not directly visible in the scores, the 16th century’s expansion to 19 pitches by means of mean-tone tuning with pure thirds informs many of his compositions, such as his Lamentationes Sacrae et Profanae ad Responsoria Iesualdi (1993, 1996-97). During rehearsals he travelled with the musicians to a keyboard museum to investigate the unfamiliar intervals by consulting a Vicentino harpsichord.

Continuing the Inheritance, but Differently
Though it stresses traditional references, Huber’s music is by no means derivative or nostalgic. There are symbolic points of reference and aural-sensual insights that he develops further. He seems to be in search of a meta-harmonic pitch space, an aura lying beyond the concrete musical grammar of the historical models. 

What results from this is new ideas with allusions, such as occur in his Lamentationes de fine vicesimi saeculi (1991-94, 1995, 2007) wherein he divides the typical European orchestra, as a supposedly de-individualized mass, into four chamber orchestras which, following his role model Stravinsky, make music in maqam pitch spaces, polytonally transposed to different degrees. This gives rise to a supra-chamber music with very varied instrumental colors.

We congratulate Luigi Nono and Klaus Huber on the occasion of their 90th birthdays!

Text: Till Knipper, translated by Richard Toop